Byrd Theatre May Be Getting New Seats From Cannes 

click to enlarge The seats in question from the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the main theater for the Cannes Film Festival.

The seats in question from the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the main theater for the Cannes Film Festival.

Local moviegoers can breathe a sigh of relief.

The Byrd Theatre, Richmond's jewel 1928 cinema palace that the Huffington Post travel section recently voted the "one thing you must do in Virginia," finally could be getting new seats. Well, new to you, anyway.

The Grand Théâtre Lumière, the main theater for the revered Cannes Film Festival, reportedly is donating the seats to the Byrd, which serves as host of the 22-year-old French Film Festival, billed as the largest of its kind in the country. The Grand Théâtre Lumière is the same theater big-time celebrities enter straight off the Cannes red carpet.

The donation value of the seats is about $1.3 million, according to Peter Kirkpatrick, who co-founded the French Film Festival with his wife, Françoise. The festival, March 27-30, is co-sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond.

The deal was brokered by Pierre-William Glenn, president of the Commission Supérieure Technique (CST) de l'Image et du Son, which awards the Prix Vulcain de l'Artiste Technicien for technical achievement at Cannes. Many of the same French technicians from Cannes help stage the French Film Festival, and Glenn has been a frequent speaker at the Byrd. Impressed by the theater, Glenn once made a short film about the connection between the Byrd and the French film industry.

In a letter to the Kirkpatricks, Glenn writes: "The current seats will be dismantled and changed after the end of this year's [Cannes] Festival on May 25th. I shall look into the freight possibilities after this date. I have already sent you copies of the various e-mails that accompanied this negotiation, which began some two months ago with the current Mayor of Cannes, Mr. Bernard Brochand, his probable successor, David Lisnard, and the manageress of the Palais des Festivals, Martine Giuliani. The only thing that might jeopardize this agreement is if they lose the local elections at the end of this month, which is unlikely but politics are always an unknown quantity."

"The donation is actually through the French Film Festival," says Kirkpatrick, whose wife has served on the jury at Cannes. In addition to the seats, the CST is donating cinemascope lenses for the Byrd's two 35 mm projectors, Kirkpatrick says.

Glenn will be arriving at the French Film Festival with one of the burgundy seats. He's presenting "Cousin Jules" (the first film he worked on as a cinematographer) March 28 at 7:10 p.m. in a special media event. During the weekend, people can see –- and sit in -– the new seat. There will be some says: "There is more to the story. That is going to be surprise news [at the media event]."

The Byrd's general manager Todd Schall-Vess says there's no word on how much it will cost to bring the 2,200 seats or when they will be installed, though he hopes to have them by the theater's birthday celebration in late December. He has yet to discuss the news with the Byrd Theatre Foundation.

"There are going to be historic restoration concerns. I really think these seats are going to be a temporary solution," Schall-Vess says. "It could be another 10 years before the Byrd is completely restored. The building still hasn't been paid for, lot of things need to happen. So these seats give us some breathing room."

In more ways than one. Schall-Vess says the new seats are two to three inches wider, giving moviegoers a little more space. Schall-Vess quotes the theater's president emeritus, Tony Pelling, who said of the Byrd's 1920s seats: "They were not designed to accommodate the Greater American."

The Byrd seats 1,300 but will receive 2,200 seats from France, which means plenty of replacement parts will be handy -- unlike the current setup. The original end caps on the Byrd aisle chairs are likely to be the only decorative items saved from the current seats, Schall-Vess says.

In August, an original Byrd seat was shipped to the French company that makes seats for Cannes to examine for restoration should the Byrd receive funding to renovate its original seats, Kirkpatrick says. “In the long run, the French would give them better seats at better price,” he says.

In another fortunate connection between the Byrd and France, French filmmaker Jean Achache, who showed the jazz film “Night at the Club” at last year’s French Film Festival, was so taken with the Byrd that he's including it in his documentary on the top movie palaces of the world. The Byrd will represent the United States. Other countries featured include Cuba, Brazil, Vietnam, India and Amsterdam.

Achache will be shooting here in April and May, Kirkpatrick says. Funded by French television, the series will be released around the world.

Schall-Vess hopes this latest round of good press for the Byrd could help turn the tide in favor of complete restoration. He says part of his goal with the theater has been allowing festivals and local, independent filmmakers a venue to affordably show their films. “In this country, filmmaking as an art is looked down upon in a way that it’s not in the rest of the world,” Schall-Vess says. “This theater was built as a movie palace first and foremost. ... All of this great exposure is really happening because of the VCU and University of Richmond-sponsored French Film festival.”

For now, it’s enough to savor the fact that your butt soon may be moving away from the danger of being jabbed by a loose metal spring and toward a plush, larger seat that director David Lynch probably sat on recently.

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